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Volume 577: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2014

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Tony Benn, who died last week. He made many memorable speeches in this House, and alongside a record of ministerial, parliamentary and public service, he was also a great writer, a great diarist and a great campaigner, no matter whether one agreed with his views or not. He will be missed by both sides of the House, and our thoughts are with the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and other members of his family at this time.

I am sure that the House will also join me in paying tribute to the fantastic Team GB winter Paralympics team, following its great success at the Sochi games. Special congratulations must go to Kelly Gallagher, who won our first ever gold medal at the winter Paralympics, and Jade Etherington, who is now our most successful winter Paralympian, with four medals.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I am sure that the whole House will want to be associated with the remarks made by the Prime Minister today about Tony Benn, and his congratulations to the Paralympics team. The Paralympics started, of course, in Buckinghamshire.

Today, unemployment has fallen by 63,000, with youth and long-term unemployment also falling, and that has been evident in Chesham and Amersham, where we have seen growth in the private sector continue. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must sustain this growth by continuing to tackle the deficit and support industry, and continue with our long-term economic plan?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about Buckinghamshire’s link with the Paralympic games. The flame from Stoke Mandeville came to No. 10 Downing street recently. She is also absolutely right about the unemployment figures, which show employment going up and unemployment coming down, a record number of people in work in our country, a record number of women in work in our country, and youth unemployment coming down too. What is particularly remarkable over the last quarter is that private sector employment has gone up by 118,000 and public sector employment has gone down by just 13,000, so 10 times more jobs have been created in the private sector. The important thing is what that means for Britain’s families. For millions of people, it means a pay packet, the chance of work, the chance of dignity, the chance of stability and security, and I hope it will be welcomed across the House.

Let me begin by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Tony Benn. The death of Tony Benn represents the loss of an iconic figure of our age. He will be remembered as a champion of the powerless and a great parliamentarian who defended the rights of Back Benchers in this House against the Executive, whichever Government they came from. He spoke his mind and he spoke up for his values. Everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for, and that is why he won respect from all Members of the House. All our condolences go to his children, Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua, and to his wider family. In their different ways, they take forward what he taught as a father, a socialist and as someone of great decency.

I also want to join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the fantastic Team GB winter Paralympics team, following its great success in Sochi. In particular, special congratulations go to Kelly Gallagher and Jade Etherington.

This weekend we saw a referendum in Crimea take place in the shadow of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Does the Prime Minister agree that the referendum was illegal, illegitimate and in direct violation of the terms of the Ukrainian constitution? Does he also share my deep concern following the news that a Ukrainian serviceman was shot and killed at a military base in Crimea yesterday?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that the referendum in Crimea is illegitimate and illegal. It was spatchcocked together in 10 days and held at the point of a Russian Kalashnikov. This cannot be accepted or legitimised by the international community.

We should be absolutely clear about what has happened: it is the annexation, effectively, of one country’s territory by another country. We must also be absolutely clear about our interest, which is to see a rules-based international system where countries obey the rules. If we turn away from this crisis and do not act, we will pay a very high price in the longer term. We should be clear that this referendum is illegitimate, we must be clear that consequences must follow and we should work with our European partners and the United States for a strong, consistent and robust response.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer and would like to ask him about the meetings that are coming up. The White House has indicated that its sanctions will be expanded, and I am sure the whole House will support the idea that the list of Ukrainian and Russian officials targeted by asset freezes and travel bans will also be extended at the EU Council meeting tomorrow. Will the Prime Minister tell the House the circumstances in which he would also support additional, wider economic and trade sanctions on the Russian Federation?

As we discussed previously in the House, the European Union set out some very clear triggers. We said that if the Russians did not take part in a contact group with the Ukrainian Government to take forward discussions, asset freezes and travel bans should follow. Those were put in place at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday, and I believe further action on that front should be taken at the European Council of Ministers, which I will take part in on Thursday.

I also think we should be responding to the fact of this annexation. We said that if there is further action to destabilise Ukraine—and this annexation is that action—further consequences need to follow. We need to set that out on Thursday, in concert with our European partners. At the same time, we need to put down a very clear warning that if there is further destabilisation—for instance, going into eastern Ukraine in any way—we will move to a position of the sorts of economic sanctions we discussed in the House last week.

The Prime Minister should know that he will have the support of Members on this side of the House for the toughest possible diplomatic and economic measures against the Russian Federation, given the totally illegitimate action it has taken.

I also welcome yesterday’s announcement that the G7 allies will gather next week at The Hague. Given Russia’s actions, it seems inconceivable that it can remain in the G8, so does the Prime Minister now agree that a meeting of the G8 should go further and explicitly decide to suspend Russia from the group of G8 advanced economies?

I was one of the first people to say that I thought it was unthinkable for the G8 to go ahead as planned. We were one of the first countries to suspend all preparations for that G8 and I strongly support the meeting of G7 countries that will take place on Monday. It is important that we move together with our allies and partners, and we should be discussing whether or not to expel Russia permanently from the G8 if further steps are taken. That is the meeting we will have on Monday and I think that is the right way to proceed.

Q2. May I add a few words about Tony Benn? He was a great man and it was my pleasure to work with one of his sons, Stephen, for a number of years on science policy.Lifting the income tax threshold to £10,000 so far has lifted 2.7 million poorly paid people out of paying any income tax, making a difference to them. Is the Prime Minister pleased that he abandoned his pre-election objection to that and that he is implementing an excellent Lib Dem policy? (903129)

The hon. Gentleman brings the House together in his usual way. What I am sure we can agree on is that it has been an excellent move by a Conservative Chancellor in a coalition Government to make sure that you do not pay tax on the first £10,000 of income you earn. That benefits people earning all the way up to £100,000. It is worth, so far, more than £700 to a typical income tax payer and it is highly worth while, and I look forward to hearing what the Chancellor has to say.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this week I received from a Palestinian friend an e-mail telling me that the Israelis assassinated a friend in his house and that

“another brother of a friend has been shot dead by the army. So we spent our time from one funeral to another”?

When the right hon. Gentleman was in Israel last week, did he raise with Netanyahu this constant stream of killing of innocent Palestinians by the Israelis, and what is he going to do about it?

I did not raise that specific case, which the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly raises in the House today, but I did raise with the Israeli Prime Minister the importance of how the Israelis behave in the west bank and elsewhere, and I raised the issue of settlements, which I believe are unacceptable and need to stop.

I also strongly supported both the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President in their efforts to find a peace. There is a prospect and an opportunity now, because the Americans are leading a set of talks that could lead to a framework document being agreed, and it is in everyone’s interest to put all the pressure we can on both the participants to take part and to get on with these negotiations, which I believe would mean so much to ordinary Israelis, ordinary Palestinians and, indeed, the rest of us.

Q3. Unemployment in Pendle has now fallen over the past 12 months from 4.9% down to 3.8%, helped by a resurgence in British manufacturing. Compared with the 1.8 million manufacturing jobs lost under the previous Labour Government, would our Prime Minister agree that our long-term economic plan is delivering for the north of England? (903130)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we want to have a balanced recovery: we want to see growth and employment right across the country. It is worth noting that since 2010, 80% of the rise in private sector employment has taken place outside London. The unemployment rate in the north-west, where my hon. Friend has his seat, is lower than it is in London. We are beginning to see a balanced recovery, but we have got to do everything we can—backing apprenticeships, backing industry—to make sure that continues.

Primodos was a drug given to women to determine pregnancy in the 1960s and 1970s. Its potency is 18 times that of morning after pills. As a result, thousands and thousands of babies were born with deformities. Up to now, there has never been a public inquiry or compensation for the victims. Will the Prime Minister meet me, my constituent Nicola Williams and a representative of the victims’ association to discuss this?

I am very happy to look at the case that the hon. Lady mentions. Clearly, this is an important issue. Anyone who has had a disabled child knows the enormous challenges that that brings. I am very happy to look at the case that she raises, and get back to her about it.

Q4. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the benefits of economic recovery in my constituency are somewhat tempered by uncomfortable pressures on housing development and inadequate rail infra-structure? Notwithstanding the need for these matters to be dealt with quickly, is it not increasingly clear that there is a need to do more to stem the continuing flow of population to the south-east, by imaginative measures that will spread the benefits of recovery throughout all regions of the country? (903131)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said, we want a balanced recovery. Our long-term economic plan is working. An important part of that long-term economic plan is the infrastructure investment that we are making. Obviously, HS2 is important in rebalancing between north and south, but let us be clear: we are spending three times more on other transport schemes in the next Parliament as we are on HS2, and that includes projects such as rail electrification to Bristol, Nottingham and Sheffield, and between Liverpool and Manchester. All of these things can make a difference, and they are all part of our plan.

In recent days, the country’s leading mental health charities have joined together to warn of deep concerns about mental health services. Members from across this House have spoken out bravely on this subject, including about the impact on those who experience mental heath problems, their families and our country. Does the Prime Minister agree that mental health should have equal priority with physical health in our heath care systems?

First, let me agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the debate that took place in this House about mental health. I read the debate carefully and thought that a number of hon. Members took some very brave and bold steps to talk about issues and problems in their own lives. I thought that was an incredibly brave and right thing to do. In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Let me ask him about some specifics that suggest that we are moving away from the equal footing that we both want to see. The mental health share of the NHS budget is falling, services for children and young people are being squeezed, there are fewer mental health beds, and more young people are being treated on adult psychiatric wards. We know that those things are not just bad for the individuals concerned, but can store up bigger costs for the future. Does the Prime Minister agree that they really should not be happening?

First, taking the big picture on health spending, we have decided to increase health spending, rather than reduce it. Health spending is up by £12.7 billion across this Parliament. We have legislated for parity of esteem, as I have said, and we have put in place proper waiting times and disciplines for things such as mental health therapies, which were not there before. Of course, there is still further to go. We need commissioners to really focus on the importance of mental health services—but the money is there, the legal priority is there; we need the health service to respond.

The problem is that the mental health budget has fallen for the first time in a decade. It is not getting the share of health spending that it needs. I urge the Prime Minister to look at the specifics that I have raised. We need to ensure that the consensus that clearly exists in this House is reflected in the daily decisions that are made up and down the country about mental health in the health service. Will the Prime Minister agree to enshrine equality for mental health in the NHS constitution in order to send a message to decision makers about the priority that mental health deserves and to ensure that those who are affected by mental health problems get better access to the treatment and care that they need?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point not just about parity of esteem for mental health in law, but about what we see on the ground. We have put £400 million into talking therapies, which are a very important part of mental health provision. Mental health provision is referenced very clearly in the mandate that is given to NHS England, which in many ways is the absolutely key document for the health service. He is absolutely right that a culture change in favour of mental health and helping with mental health problems is still needed in the way the health service works. On that, there can be all-party support.

Q15. Many small business entrepreneurs in Sittingbourne and Sheppey have personal incomes below the current welfare cap. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend consider doing more for small businesses by reducing the burden of regulation, lowering tax and increasing thresholds, as well as by offering them extra assistance in taking on more apprentices? (903142)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that a key part of our long-term economic plan is to help small businesses take more people on. Absolutely key to that is the employment allowance—the cut in national insurance contributions of £2,000—that will come in this April. It is very important that we all encourage all small businesses to take up that money and therefore to take on more people. At the same time, we are abolishing employer’s national insurance contributions for the under-21s from April 2015. Companies, including those in his constituency, can therefore start planning to take on more people.

Q5. Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister wrongly told the House that child care costs were coming down in England, while they continued to go up in Wales. The House of Commons Library says that that is not the case. This week, the Deputy Prime Minister is offering a pre-election bribe on child care, which will not come into effect until September 2015. Will the Prime Minister get a grip on this policy and help hard-working families with their child care costs now, in this Parliament, because of the cost of living crisis that they are facing today? (903132)

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong on both counts. We are seeing some easing in cost pressures in England on child care costs, but I am afraid in Wales they are still going up. He might want to talk to the Welsh Assembly Government about that.

The point that the Deputy Prime Minister and I were making yesterday was that we want to help hard-working families with their child care costs. Therefore, from 2015, £2,000 on child care costs can be saved for every child. Is it not interesting, Mr Speaker, that we can now hear that the Labour party opposes that move? Clearly, it does not welcome it, so there will be a very clear choice at the election: if you vote for parties on this side of the House, you get help with child care, and if you vote Labour, you get nothing.

Q6. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Conservative-run Amber Valley borough council, which has frozen its council tax for a fifth straight year, providing real help to hard-working people, in stark contrast to the three Labour parts of the area, where it is going up this year? (903133)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should do everything we can to help hard-working people meet their budgets and meet their needs. That is why councils’ freezing council tax provides a huge amount of help. The Government are doing their part by freezing fuel duty, by raising the personal allowance and by doing everything we can to help hard-working people get on with their lives.

The Prime Minister assured the House on 27 November that the Government had exempted disabled people who need an extra bedroom from the bedroom tax. Does he think it is right that my constituent Mr Gunning has to pay the tax with his disability living allowance because he lives in Tory Trafford?

What I said to the House was absolutely correct, and I am happy to repeat that today, but there are obviously also the discretionary housing payments, which are there for local councils to deal with difficult cases. I would recommend that the hon. Gentleman takes that up with the council.

Q7. Russia is not just expanding into the Crimea, but its ships, submarines and aircraft are increasingly appearing off our shores. Bearing in mind that we have great news on the economy and that the Ministry of Defence sent back an underspend last year, is it possible, as suggested by the House of Commons Defence Committee, that we could have a new maritime patrol aircraft before the next strategic defence and security review? (903134)

I say to my hon. Friend, first, that we are able to have these sorts of discussions and considerations only because we have sorted out the defence budget and got rid of the enormous deficit in it, and we have a successful and growing economy. In terms of maritime patrol, we are currently using the airborne warning and control system aircraft, and of course the Sea King, Merlin and Lynx helicopters, as well as Royal Navy ships and submarines. We work in very close partnership with our NATO allies, but I am sure the Ministry of Defence will be listening to my hon. Friend’s representations for the forthcoming SDSR.

This is a great Labour campaign—I spotted it this morning. They have enumerated a number of tax increases that we had to put in place in order to deal with the deficit. Just to remind people, we said it was right to deal with the deficit with 80% spending reductions and 20% tax increases. There is a problem, though, with this Labour campaign. When the spokesman was asked, “Would you change any of these tax increases?” the answer was no. I am not the world’s biggest expert in campaigns, but I would say that was a bit of a turkey.

Q8. I welcome the Prime Minister’s help for those hit by flooding, but I am told that it applies only to areas affected since December. My constituency had its worst ever flooding last September. Will he visit the area, and will he extend his help to the homes and businesses that are still suffering? (903135)

I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, because the sea surge that took place at Redcar and across Teesside last September led to some of the worst floods that have been seen in the area for a long time. What is absolutely key is that we improve the sea wall to protect properties in Redcar from future flooding. My understanding is that, working with partners, there is a £30 million investment going ahead across 3 km of coast, which will protect something like 1,000 homes. Obviously there may well be more that we need to do, and I am very happy to discuss that with him.

What we said we would do was cut the deficit, and we have cut the deficit. We said we would get Britain back to work, and we are getting Britain back to work. We said we wanted a private sector-led recovery; we have got a private sector-led recovery. The hon. Lady asks what went wrong. I can give it to her in one word: Labour.

Q9. This week, BMW announced that it is coming to Tamworth and bringing with it 100 skilled new jobs. That is on top of the hundreds of new jobs that are already in the pipeline. When my right hon. Friend is next in the midlands, which is the manufacturing heart of our country, will he drop into Tamworth and commend our local enterprise partnership and Tamworth borough council for helping to deliver our long-term economic plan and make Tamworth the place in the midlands to do business? (903136)

I am always delighted to visit Tamworth, not least to pay homage to the statue of Sir Robert Peel. I would be happy to go back and do that. What my hon. Friend says about the manufacturing revival is important, because we really can see it now in the west midlands, with the news from Jaguar Land Rover, the new engine plant that is opening up, and also what he says about BMW. One in four BMWs, I think, now has a British-made engine. That is great news for what we want to see: more jobs making things, more jobs exporting things, and a manufacturing revival in the UK.

Q10. Speaking for myself, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo) and the people of Bristol, whom Tony Benn served so well for 30 years, may I join in paying tribute to him and expressing condolences to his family? Tony Benn was from a very privileged background, yet he spent his political life fighting for the working people. With a cost of living crisis, wages falling by £1,600 a year, people queuing at food banks and so much that requires the Prime Minister’s attention, why does he seem so obsessed with plans to bring back fox hunting by the back door for the benefit of a privileged few? (903137)

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Tony Benn as a constituency MP. He was always an incredibly busy Back Bencher and Minister, but he never forgot about his constituents. He was also very good with a friendly, helpful word for new Back Benchers, whatever side of the House they happened to be on. I am sure that, like me, many Members experienced that from him.

In terms of what we are doing to help the poorest in our country, the most important thing is getting people back to work. We have now seen 1.7 million new private sector jobs under this Government, and that is the best way of helping people sustainably out of poverty. As they come out of poverty, they will see a higher minimum wage, and also the ability to earn more money before they pay any taxes at all. Those are the Government’s priorities, that is our long-term plan, and that is what people are going to hear about.

Q11. May I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to Tony Benn, whose ancestral seat of Stansgate is in my constituency? He was held in high regard by my constituents, even though they may not have agreed with his views.Is my right hon. Friend aware that today’s figures show that unemployment in Maldon has fallen by 27% since the last election, and does he agree that that is further proof that the Chancellor was absolutely right to ignore his critics on the Opposition Benches and stick to his guns? (903138)

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. As I said, there is good news in the unemployment figures about getting women and young people into work and about falls in long-term unemployment, but there has also been the largest annual fall in the claimant count—the number of people claiming unemployment benefit—since February 1998. Getting people back to work and giving them the chance of a job, dignity and security in their lives is really important. That is what our economic plan is all about.

At the weekend a young woman from Eastham in my constituency, Sophie Jones, died of cervical cancer, leaving her family and friends bereft and unable to understand why she did not get the smear test that she asked for. Will the Prime Minister send his sympathies to her friends and family, and will he work with me to ensure that once we understand what went wrong, we have the right policies in place to ensure that that does not happen to anyone else?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that case. Many of us will have read about it in the papers at the weekend, and it seems an absolutely tragic case. We have made huge breakthroughs in this country, under Governments of both parties, in the screening programmes and public health information that is available, but something seems to have gone wrong in this case. I am very happy to look into it, and to write to the hon. Lady and seek any views that she has about it too.

Q12. Today’s unemployment figures show a reduction in Bradford East of 14, which—I concede—is better than an increase of 14, but is very disappointing nevertheless and leaves us ninth highest for unemployment in the country. I recently visited a training provider in Bradford, who said that there were 600 apprenticeship vacancies in Bradford. Is the Prime Minister confident that we are doing enough to ensure that young people in particular are aware of apprenticeships, but also prepared to take them on? (903139)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point; pockets of quite high unemployment are often found right next to areas that have a lot of apprenticeships or jobs available. There are two things that we have to get right. One is that we have to make sure that more of our young people are leaving school with the key qualifications, including English and maths, which are absolutely vital to taking on an apprenticeship—we need to stress that those subjects are vocational subjects and must be at the heart of education. Secondly, we need to do more to explain to young people in school what is available in terms of apprenticeships and training, and that is exactly what our National Careers Service is going to do.

Q13. Are we really all in this together when the Prime Minister thinks that some public sector workers do not even deserve a 1% pay rise while he signs off on bumper pay rises of up to 40% for his own Government’s special advisers? Does that alone not show that not only is the Prime Minister out of touch, but he only stands up for his own privileged few? (903140)

Well, it is interesting: it is 12.30 pm and 29 seconds and not a single Labour MP has mentioned the unemployment figures today. Let me answer the hon. Gentleman very directly: under our plans, everyone in the NHS will get at least a 1% pay rise, and this is something I was told was supported by the Labour party. This is what the leader of the Labour party said:

“we’re talking, actually about a pay increase limited to I say, this Labour party is going to face up to those difficult choices we have to make.”

How long did that one last? Confronted by a trade union campaign, he demonstrates once again his complete weakness and unfitness for office.

Q14. A recent report into female foeticide suggests that the female population has been reduced in the UK by 4,500 and worldwide by 200 million. As a proud British-Asian father of two daughters, may I ask my right hon. Friend to call for an end to this most appalling practice? This once taboo subject clearly must end, not just in the UK, but in the world as a whole. (903141)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a simply appalling practice, and in areas such as that, and female genital mutilation and forced marriage, we need to be absolutely clear about our values and the messages we send and about these practices being unacceptable. The Government have made clear that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal. The chief medical officer wrote to all doctors on 22 November last year reminding them of their responsibilities. I am meeting the chief medical officer this afternoon and I will raise this issue with her, and I think it is absolutely right of my hon. Friend to run this campaign.